PW Select, for those of you not familiar with it, is a quarterly feature within Publisher's Weekly that is devoted to the world of self publishing. Initiated at the end of 2010, I was glad to see that PW was finally going to give some recognition to worthy authors who were, for whatever reason, being ignored by mainstream publishing and who had therefore decided to take matters into their own hands to get their books into print. I was excited by the prospect of being able to add all sorts of interesting self published titles to my library's collection. Unfortunately, PW Select has not lived up to my expectations and perusing it has generally been a pretty depressing experience.
According to the inaugural issue of December 20, 2010, PW Select will provide reviews for at least 25 of the approximately 200 self-published submissions it receives for listing each quarter; each issue will also include several feature articles covering various aspects of self publishing. For a fee of $149, the self published author can buy a bare bones listing that includes author, title, publisher, medium, page count, ISBN and a one or two sentence description of the book; these listings provide PW with approximately $120,000 in additional revenue over the course of a year. The most recent issue of PW Select in the January 2, 2012 issue of Publisher's Weekly contains listings for 193 self published titles, 37 of which are given full reviews similar in style to those found in the main portion of PW. Unfortunately, no criteria are provided that would explain the decision making process used to determine which of the listed books get reviewed. There is also no way to determine if all of the revenue collected for PW Select is being used to support the operations associated with PW Select or if the real purpose of PW Select is to serve as a cash cow for its parent publication. I therefore decided to do some basic quantitative analysis to see if I could get a better handle on what is actually going on with PW Select. Here's what I found:
1. Of the 193 self published books that people submitted for the listing, the largest category by far was adult fiction, with 102 titles, followed by the category autobiography/biography (which included memoir) with 21 titles; the 18 books which fell into the juvenile fiction category made it the third largest category. The next largest categories were self help with 7 titles and poetry with 5. After that, the subject matter of the remaining non-fiction titles was fairly evenly distributed over a variety of other subjects.
2. Of the titles selected for review, 25 were adult fiction, 7 adult non-fiction, and 5 were children's titles. For those authors hoping to score an actual PW review, clearly it helped to be writing for children; nearly 28% of the submitted children's books received reviews, compared with 24.5% for the writers of adult fiction and only 9.6% for the non-fiction authors.
3. I then looked at the reviews for each book to determine if each was positive, negative or mixed. While this is admittedly somewhat subjective, I came up with the following breakdowns:
Adult fiction: 8 positive, 12 negative, 5 mixed
Adult non-fiction: 5 positive, 1 negative, 1 mixed
Children's books: 3 positive, 1 negative, 1 mixed
There was something distasteful in all of this and it took me a while to put my finger on it. In that same issue of PW, there were also 93 regular reviews of adult fiction and non-fiction titles, the vast majority of which could be considered favorable. This makes sense; with the large number of books that are being published, there are enough good ones out there to obviate the need to waste valuable reviewing space on poorly written books. Generally, the only negative reviews I see in PW are of works by popular or otherwise prominent authors whose current work, in the opinion of the reviewer, does not live up to the author's previous high standards. This also makes sense: In instances such as these, it is only fair to warn an author's loyal fans that they will be headed down a path to certain disappointment.
And then I figured it out. In the search for the next undiscovered literary superstar, PW Select serves as a sort of American Idol venue for librarians and readers. ( I disclose here that I have never watched an episode of American Idol and what I know about the show I have learned primarily from reading about it.) What I find distasteful about the American Idol concept is the fact that ordinary people who are painfully deluded into thinking that they have talent are paraded before millions of viewers and subject to mass ridicule, all in the name of good clean fun. We consider that these people are fair game for our ridicule not only because they have overly inflated opinions of themselves but also because they have volunteered themselves for the experience. This makes me uncomfortable in the same way that I was made uncomfortable as a young child watching a mentally challenged teen willingly do something that was humiliating to himself because it was requested of him by the neighborhood "cool" kids and he was looking for their acceptance.
And it's the same thing with PW Select. Obviously, anybody who goes to the trouble of having their book self published and then paying $149 for a listing in PW Select believes that his or her work has merit and deserves a wide audience. But if a book that has been self published is poorly written and would not otherwise cross the radar of librarians or booksellers, what purpose does it serve, other than to feed a taste for snark, to waste the space - and my time - on reviews that are negative?
I wonder if the purpose of the bad reviews isn't to serve as a comeuppance of sorts to those who dare to put themselves out there as legitimate writers in defiance of the collective wisdom of the people in the publishing industry who have rejected them. No matter what, the vast majority of self published authors are going to end up with boxes and boxes of their books sitting in basements, garages, or attics. Isn't that punishment enough?